Paul Dini and Cort Lane Talk Character Development, Guest Stars & More In ‘Hulk And The Agents Of S.M.A.S.H.’
As you'd expect, the success of Marvel's film franchises has affected the entire company, across all media, from the Marvel NOW! publishing initiative to next month's Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. debut on ABC. Marvel has also stepped up its animation game, with the popular The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes leading to the launch of Marvel's Avengers Assemble, which airs in the same block as Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man. Now, following the on the heels of those shows as well as the Avengers film -- which many consider to be the best ever portrayal of the Hulk outside of comics -- comes the company's latest animated series: Marvel's Hulk And The Agents Of S.M.A.S.H. Debuting this past weekend on Disney XD, the new show features Hulk alongside Red Hulk, She-Hulk, A-Bomb and Skaar. The goal of the series, according to Supervising Producer Cort Lane and writer and Creative Consultant Paul Dini, is to blend humor and heart to tell a story that touches several corners of the Marvel Universes but ultimately focuses on the relationships between these five incredibly powerful outcasts, and how they go about trying to find their places in the world while showing everyone that they're heroes.
But what else can we expect from the series? How do you come up with threats big enough for five Hulks? ComicsAlliance will be talking each week to various members of the team, who'll answer all these questions and more. This week, following the "Doorway To Destruction," the two part series debut, I spoke to Lane and Dini about character development, the impressive voice cast, the absence of Bruce Banner, and upcoming guest stars and additions to the team... including Devil Dinosaur.
ComicsAlliance: I’d like to start the interview with the biggest note I had: There’s no Bruce Banner in this show. He’s never even mentioned. Without giving anything away of course, will Bruce be a part of the show at any point going forward, or is this strictly about the Hulks?
Paul Dini: This is going to be pretty much about the Hulk and all the other Hulks. In the early stages of thinking about the show, we considered the potential audience, and what we mostly wanted to do was show the Hulk as a hero all the time, and the fact that he’s made peace with this identity, and he really prefers to be this way. And he’s this way because he sort of comes around to the idea of offering a sort of home to his fellow Hulks. The idea of him turning back into Bruce kind of didn’t work with this, so we decided to downplay the transformation elements and stick to the fact that he’s pretty much the Hulk all the time.
Cort Lane: And I think it’s okay to sort of imply that Bruce is integrated as the Hulk now. That’s certainly the way it has been off and on in publishing for the last several years. And let’s face it: kinds want to see the Hulk!
CA: The first major thing you establish in this series is that the Hulk isn’t on the run from the Government. In fact, he seems to have a partnership, or at least an understanding, with the government. That’s unlike most other versions of the character we’ve seen outside of comics, where he’s seen by Army as a villain and by many as maybe an anti-hero, constantly fighting the Army or just looking to be left alone. What prompted that change?
PD: Well I think a lot of it is in the reasons you just mentioned. That’s the way he’s always been portrayed. We were looking at different ways of kind of approaching the Hulk and one of the ideas we always got back to was: is the Hulk a monster or is he a hero? And when we were looking for a driving interest for the show, we came up with the idea that some time had passed, in terms of however you look at Hulk continuity, and he’d kind of made peace with the outside world and the Banner mentality. As we said, he’s the Hulk all the time now, and people have kind of allowed him to be left alone. He’s got this old Hulkbuster base that General Ross had built out in the desert. It’s long since been abandoned and he’s moved into it and kind of made it his headquarters. He looks at it as “As long as I stay here nobody gets hurt.”
He’s not the old rampaging Hulk, he just wants to kind of stay here and be by himself. When we first see him he’s living this almost monastic existence. He’s just pumping massive amounts of weights down in the cellar, and he really prefers to be left alone and it’s only the prompting of Rick and the appearance of Red Hulk that brings him out into the world again. Also, since he has the old relationship with General Ross, which we touch upon a little bit, we establish that the only way Ross could finally beat the Hulk was become a Hulk himself. And by doing that, he’s turned himself permanently into Red Hulk, and now he has no place to be. He was once this decorated military man, and ironically the only place he can now fit in is with the very monster he tried to destroy. He’s walked a mile in the Hulk's bare feet and he’s come around to his point of view, and he’s realizing that maybe now there are different ways I can be a hero. The world still mistrusts the Hulk, they don’t really know what to make of him, but kind of within our way of thinking, he’s been seen enough in the other shows that, while there isn’t the direct, rock solid continuity between the other shows – he does show up in the Avengers, he does show up in Ultimate Spider-Man at one point – and yes he is kind of a loose cannon in those shows, but as long as he is granted this place to be, this location that centralizes him, the world is more or less okay with that. There’ll always be detractors like J. Jonah Jameson, but there are also people like Doc Samson, who think “Well maybe if I work a little more with him, I can really bring him all out to be a functioning member of society.” So, while they’re all kind of loose cannons sitting out in the desert, it’s better that they’re there than the five of them are rampaging separately throughout the world.
CA: "Doorway to Destruction" is the start of a new Hulk series, but you don’t use a villain associated with the Hulk in the opening storyline. How’d you decide on Annihilus?
PD: Well, one of the things early on was, okay, if we’ve got five Hulks working together, however contentiously, the threats they face are going to have to be really big. It’s going to have to be more than one monster or one threat, and that’s certainly not going to include Batroc the Leaper or anyone like that. It’s going to have to be missions that even the Avengers can’t handle. So we were looking for a big show and a big threat, and even though Annihilus is traditionally more of a Fantastic Four villain, he’s a major adversary for Earth, where other heroes have had confrontations with him. So we thought “That’s a big enough threat to bring all the Hulks together.” So you’ve got the doorway to the Negative Zone opening, and all these creatures and Annihilus coming out not just to take over our world but take over the entire Universe. So let’s see if the Hulks are up to that challenge. And you’re going to see that throughout the entire series: villains who are not necessarily associated with the Hulk, but who present a big enough challenge that they can give him and the other Agents of S.M.A.S.H. bigger and bigger fights. So you can expect to see characters like Galactus, and…
CL: Ego the Living Planet!
PD: Yes, Ego The Living Planet. The Hulks take on a whole planet.
CL: These are threats on a massive scale, which suits the Hulks because really only a threat that big is worthy of them because they can survive anything. But on that note, at the end of the second episode we tease who the villain behind the scenes is, manipulating events, and that of course is the Hulk’s greatest villain.
PD: But all this is not to say that the Hulk’s can’t separate for a bit and go off to face individual threats. We do that at one point with the Red Hulk as he goes off and has an adventure, and comes across one of Marvel’s best known villains, and that makes for a very entertaining match up.
CA: You have these five Hulk characters, and as you said, you need to find big enough threats. You’ve mentioned Ego and Galactus, but early on, was it as simple as a bunch of folks sitting in a writer’s room saying “Okay, who can we have them fight?” and throwing out names? Did you guys put together a want list?
PD: There was definitely a little bit of that. We’re all fans, and we all have our favorite heroes and villains. So to some degree we were saying “Who are the biggest threats we can throw against the Hulk?” And by the same token, we thought about villain’s in the Hulk’s rogues gallery, and tried to decide who we can revitalize and ramp up a little bit, and also make huge threats. The joy of working with somebody like Marvel is that to a great degree we have the run of the candy store, we can put whatever we want in it, so it’s sort of like “Hey, how about this villain? Yeah, he’s cool. Hey, what about this army over here? Oh hey, I was going through these old comics and found some classic Kirby monsters, what about them?” So really, we’re all mega fans of the stuff, and we did our research and went way back into Marvel history and came up with the biggest challenges we can for the team. And that was great, to make a list and be really enthusiastic about it. So yeah, we definitely made a list of characters we wanted to drop in there.
CA: I like that you don’t go into in-depth origins for most of the characters. Red Hulk talks about his origin a bit, and She-Hulk and Hulk briefly mention knowing each other as kids, but the show never definitively says “Hey, they’re cousins, and this is how Jen became a Hulk.” And I think that’s the kind of thing people often expect from origins. So is it hard finding a balance between giving viewers information they need if they don’t read comics and just trusting them to be able to follow along?
CL: I think what we can do is use the confessionals throughout the series. What’s great about the mockumentary format is it gives you an opportunity to explain things on a personal level, without using flashbacks. And we do that throughout the series and we touch on those moments, but for the most part we’re starting this series from ground zero. So we see the characters and the way they interact with each other, but it’s all about their relationships now, not so much their personal history together.
PD: I mean, that’s there, and we can sort of use it on an as needed basis, but, you know, we really want to keep the action going and keep the show very much in the present. And also with the format of the show that we’ve gone with, which is the Hulk documenting his ongoing adventures via the webcam, we have to be careful about how we show a flashback. We can’t just have a character cut into a flashback because then we’d be violating the rules of what we set up, because the camera wouldn’t be showing those flashbacks. We can show little bits of recorded history with the Hulk, as we do at the top of the first episode, but we really can’t show the whole history of where they come from. But it’s all there, and She-Hulk touches upon it a bit in the first episode and we may more going forward, but early on in the series we wanted to get to the action as quick as we could.
CA: Rick Jones is the one who sets up the documentary/mockumentary. The Hulk is his best friend, and he wants to show the world that the Hulk is a good guy. But then there’s an accident and he becomes A-Bomb, and now he’s a part of the Hulk family in a different way. But he’s really comfortable with his transformation, which obviously stands in contrast to the Hulk. Will that change over time, or will he always be kind of happy go lucky?
PD: There’s definitely a downside that comes with being a monster, and even though he is kind of like a kid with a new toy, experimenting with his powers and really getting into it, we will see episodes where he’s out and about and we’ll see him experience what it’s like when people run in fear from him. When he’s out to try and save someone and they just don’t see the human in him, he does have to deal with that. That’s in an episode with him and Skarr coming, where he goes to save some people and they’re more afraid of him than they are the threat that’s coming. So that’s definitely coming. Usually we keep him pretty upbeat, but that’s something they’re all going to have to deal with. Despite their best intentions and how cool their powers are, they all have to kind of fight for a place in the world.
CA: Why’d you guys go with the mockumentary style? With so many characters, did you feel it was the best way to give each of them a good balance of screen time and humor?
CL: Jeph Loeb was the one who really helped bring that about as we thought about the show, and then Paul brought in a lot of ideas as to how to make that come to life. I think it gives you a couple of things. It gives you insight into how the characters think and how they relate to each other, it frankly provides a lot of opportunity for humor, and this is a pretty funny show. And it feeds into this concept of them proving to the world, and Rick wanting to show the world, that they’re not monsters, they’re heroes. And we’ve been very excited to see how it actually turned out in animation because it is a lot of fun.
PD: And also, this is the first generation of kids that have grown up with that sort of form of TV storytelling, where they’ll watch reality shows, they’ll watch things like Deadliest Catch, or shows on Animal Planet, which have a lot of action and a lot of danger, but also a lot of cutaways to people in confessionals, or talking about the mission they’re on. So that’s a language, a visual language, that kids are growing more and more comfortable with. And I don’t think a lot of people have tried that on an animated action show. It also gives us an opportunity for faster storytelling. It’s not as linear as a regular show, where everything has to move along over a certain period of time, and you cut very quickly to different locations. We can have catch-ups with the superimposed titles, and it doesn’t really hold us down a lot as it sometimes does with shows with much more traditional storytelling. Again, I like being kind of one step ahead of our target audience, and where they’re going. They are watching shows that relay information this way, and it became kind of a challenge and a very intriguing idea to tell a traditional superhero story that way. Also, it gives our characters chances to give insights on each other, and what it’s like to really be a part of a big dysfunctional family. When you start off an episode with red and green Hulk not talking to each other, that takes us to the confessionals, where we learn what started the rivalry. It’s kind of a unique chance to tell a story by skipping around a lot, but in a way in which the audience has come to expect, especially an audience that’s seen a lot of reality TV.
CA: Let’s talk a bit about the rest of the supporting cast. I think you made a really interesting choice with She-Hulk. In the comics, Jen Walters is a lawyer, but in this show she’s an adventurer/stunt performer/pilot. And you’ve got Skaar, who in the comics is the Hulk’s son, which you hint at in the beginning. But early on, there’s no definitive statement about it. And you have Red Hulk, who in a confessional briefly explains his history. What role do you see each of them playing in the series?
CL: I’ll start with She-Hulk, because that one is especially interesting to me. As we developed the series, we realized that each character very much had to have their own thing, they’re own skill set. They each needed to bring something unique to the table, because frankly all Hulks can smash, they’re all strong. But any given situation, what makes each special? But with She-Hulk, being a lawyer wasn’t enough for us. We realized she needed to be such a kick butt hero in her own way, and we know that she is in publishing, and she’s smart and in some ways more accustomed to the world and more accepted by the world than the other Hulks, so we were able to play that up and the idea of Hollywood stunt woman we thought was fun. But she leaves that behind for the Hulk, and brings all these wonderful fighting skills and her piloting skills, so that she can be as excited by all the adventures as the boys, but she can also respond to the boys as a woman, who frankly gets sick of how disgusting they all are. So she gives us both. She never sees herself as the girl or less than the guys, and we wanted to make sure we gave her some cool skills so that she can play that out in animation. Paul, why don’t you take Skaar, because I think you were so critical in developing his persona for the show.
PD: Skaar was a lot of fun. He really is kind of a man of mystery. Even he doesn’t know where he comes from. He knows that he was sent in servitude to Annihilus, and we reveal at the end of the two part episode who he’s really working for, and The Leader is the one who holds all the keys to Skaar’s past. He doesn’t know who he is or where he came from. He only knows that his name is Skaar. And The Leader has given him a choice: Serve me and I’ll tell you everything you want to know about your past. All I’ll tell you now is that it’s a past that’s glorious, and you will like it. Or, you can stand against me and side with these monsters, and you’ll never know who you are, where you came from, or what your potential is. Skaar is a little bit Tarzan, a little bit Mogli. He’s a savage who’s only just now making his way into civilization. He doesn’t really understand technology. So he needs a place to be, and it’s either with the Leader as a villain, go with the Hulks, or take on a more uncertain future on his own, so he decides to go with the Hulks, and maybe forge a family with them. And there are times when he says he doesn’t remember where he came from, or who he is, but he has that feeling that he belongs somewhere. That gives him a kind of soulful persona among the other characters. He’s kind of a comical character, but at the same time he has moments of heart. That makes him a compelling character, but it also makes him a very fun character. And being around the same age as A-Bomb it also makes him want to experiment with Earth things, and whatever it is A-Bomb is doing.
CA: Let’s go back to The Leader. He shows up at the end, and we see he’s the one manipulating Skaar. Is he going to be just a background character throughout the first season, manipulating things from afar, building to some sort of big reveal?
PD: No, he’s not just going to be in the background. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the first run of episodes is that, we had it going in a certain way and then about at the midpoint the whole series gets turned on its ear in one big event. And then we head off in another way and then in another episode something else really big happens, and then with our final episodes, especially our last two, things change again in a very big way, and the Leader is definitely a part of that. I don’t want to spoil anything or ruin any big surprises, but like in a lot of the best comics there is an ongoing continuity. Characters do change over time, there are surprises, role reversals, and things like that. And I think once you get into the episodes you’ll get swept up in where the show is going and what’s going on with the Hulk and his allies. It kind of has an infectious quality after a while, you get caught up in what they’re doing and what their day to day life is like.
CA: Cort, this is a question for you. You’ve brought in Paul Dini, who’s done extensive work on the DC animation universe but is now one of the main writers who helped develop this show. Can you talk a little bit about what he’s brought to the series?
CL: I’ve only shared this story once, but it was live streaming, so this is the first time it’ll show up in an actual article. When Jeph Loeb came on board to Marvel television to run the whole unit, he asked me who was on my short list of dream people to work with, who was I a huge fan of, and number one on the list was Paul Dini. And Jeph made my dreams happen. He does that a lot actually [laughs]. And he knew Paul and brought him in, and it’s been amazing because Paul has a very holistic view of story and character, through tremendous experience and obviously great skill. So there’s a perspective there that makes it richer and bigger, more fully thought out. And beyond that he’s really funny too, and we knew we wanted humor to be such an important part of the show, and he’s got the superhero experience, but he’s also got the funny cartoon experience as well. So he really is the whole package, and it’s going to sound corny because I’m on the phone with him here, but it’s all true! And here we are, and he’s developed a great working relationship with Henry Gilroy, who came on board as an ongoing story editor to help us with the script process throughout. And we work with Todd Casey, who is a supervising producer. It’s just been great, the four of us working with Jeph, and also Joe Quesada, who’s been very involved in the crafting division of the show.
PD: Well, thank you Cort [laughs]. But I agree, especially with the other guys. It’s been great to have such a diverse table here, and we really have some terrific writers working on the show. Henry brings a tremendous amount to the show, Joe brings his expertise and also a wealth of enthusiasm and excitement to the project, and it’s great making stories with them all.
CA: I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t bring up the voice cast, because it’s a great one. You’ve got folks like Fred Tatasciore, Clancy Brown, Eliza Dushku, Seth Greene and more. Can you talk about them for a bit?
PD: Well, we held a ton of auditions, but in the back of our minds we had an idea of everyone we wanted on the show, and we pretty much got everyone from our initial list. Clancy is wonderful, and early on we thought he’d be a great Red Hulk. Fred is just amazing as the Hulk, he’s really made that character his own in all the Marvel shows recently. He brings a forcefulness, anger, rage and a bit of sorrow to the character. He has this great kind of grumpy Hulk when he has to be the leader of the others, and there’s even a sensitivity to the Hulk that he brings, so he’s just been great. He’s also really frightening when he lets out that big Hulk roar. Because you sit there and think “How can that be the same guy making this great sound here and yet still find the man in the monster and the other softer qualities of the Hulk?"
And Clancy is just amazing, I’ve worked with him before when he was Lex Luthor on Superman, and he played the greatest tough guys, the greatest heavies. But again, he brings so much to it. Sometimes he has lines and he just gets into character. He might add a line to Red Hulk where he gets really gung ho and sort of arch military man, and it’ll just put us on the floor where we’ll be laughing and say “That’s it. That’s Red Hulk.” The same goes with Seth. He’s a natural improviser. He adds so much to A-Bomb. He is A-Bomb. The inflection, the snappy quality of his delivery, it makes us roll on the floor all the time. And he’ll often rip on the dialogue to us and ad lib and we’ll say “All right, Seth’s on a roll, let’s just animate that.” The same with everybody else. Benjamin [Diskin] as Skaar, he brings a heavy and almost comedic quality to him, but there is a wistfulness to Skaar and Ben brings that quality to him.
CL: And Ben is unique in that everybody else was pretty much our dream cast member that we sort of knew we wanted. And who kicks more butt than Eliza in live action television, so we knew from the beginning we wanted her. But Ben was pretty much a straightforward audition process. For Skaar, heroic, savage, and yet funny is a really fine balance, and he really just gave us the best audition. And I think the one who you have not yet been exposed to, we have cast a regular voice actor as Devil Dinosaur when he becomes a regular part of the series, and that’s Steve Bloom, famous for playing Wolverine in almost everything for us. And he actually gives that character – mind you, he doesn’t actually speak English – but he gives the character a great personality. Plus, if Wolverine ever appears in the series, wink wink, you have Steve Bloom already on hand.
CA: The wink wink potential of Wolverine is great, don't get me wrong, but I think I’m far more excited about Devil Dinosaur. That probably says a lot more about me than anything else, though.
CL: No no, me too!
PD: Oh man, I am such a big Kirby fan, and I love Devil Dinosaur, and when we decided to make him a regular cast member, no one was happier than I was.
CL: Well, we figured what other kind of pet is the Hulk going to have? He’s not exactly a cat kind of guy, so we figured a dinosaur would be good for him to run around and rough house with. We have a lot of fun with Devil Dinosaur.
CA: Any hints you want to give readers as to what they can expect from the first season?
CL: You’re going to get some great Marvel guest stars, I can tell you that. Because these Hulks, even though they’re off on their own they do encounter the rest of the Marvel Universe. Right up front there are great stories with Iron Man and Spider-Man, who relate to the Hulk in very different ways, and from a character standpoint that’s really interesting. The Hulk has a hard time trusting Tony Stark, because his life is so different from theirs. On the other hand, Spider-Man is a bit of an outsider, a bit of an outcast himself, and so he and Hulk have a bond which we’ve established in Ultimate Spider-Man, that continues in this series as well. And so those are a few things I can mention up front.
PD: Oh, and Skaar discovers there’s a hero out there who he might have a bit more in common with than the Hulk, at least superficially. And that’s Thor, who comes from a warrior background, also has flowing hair, and is very good with weapons. So you might see some of that in the first season as well.
Marvel's Hulk And The Agents Of S.M.A.S.H. airs Sunday mornings on Disney XD.